HUNTSVILLE, Texas – All season long, the Northwestern State baseball team has played at its best when the stakes have been high.
As regular-season stakes go, there will not be any higher for the Demons this season than what lies ahead this weekend.
The Demons are one of six teams battling for the final four spots in next week’s Southland Conference Tournament as they open a three-game series with conference-leading Sam Houston State at 6:30 p.m. Thursday. That game, along with Friday’s 6:30 p.m. and Saturday’s 1 p.m. matchups, will air on 100.7 FM KZBL and on the Demon Sports Network. Free streaming audio is available through the new Northwestern State Athletics mobile app, which is available for download through the Apple Store or Google Play.
“We knew going in we had two of the better teams at the end with Sam Houston and Incarnate Word,” third-year head coach Bobby Barbier said. “Sam will be really good, especially at their place. If we do what we say we do, if circumstances don’t change who we are, we’re up for it. There’s no reason to not be ready to play.”
There is plenty on the line for both teams.
For the Demons (29-21, 14-13), it is a berth in the tournament and a chance to defend their championship from a year ago. For the Bearkats (29-22, 18-9), this weekend offers a chance to clinch the conference regular-season championship on its home field, Don Sanders Stadium.
While the Bearkats know they will open play in the SLC Tournament at Constellation Field in Sugar Land, Texas, on May 22, the Demons are fighting for one of the final four spots in the eight-team tournament.
While Sam Houston State, Incarnate Word, Southeastern Louisiana and Central Arkansas all clinched tournament berths this past weekend, Northwestern State sits in a jumble of teams that enter the final series of the season with either 13 or 14 wins.
NSU is joined at 14-13 in the league by Stephen F. Austin and McNeese. Nicholls enters the weekend in possession of eighth place and the final tournament berth at 13-14.
Texas A&M-Corpus Christi finished its season this past weekend at McNeese and sits at 14-16, one-half game behind the Colonels for the final tournament spot.
With regards to reaching their second straight conference tournament and fifth in the past six seasons, the Demons’ mission is simple – win one game.
Although the Demons dropped a pair of games to Incarnate Word – one of three teams tied for second in the league a game behind Sam Houston State – this past weekend, Barbier and his staff said they took positives from the three games.
Northwestern State’s offense turned in its most consistent weekend series of the season, scoring at least five runs in all three games against the Cardinals. The Demons pounded 27 hits in Sunday’s doubleheader, racking up nine extra-base hits.
NSU slugged six home runs in the three-game series. Both J.P. Lagreco and Austin Stegall had two-homer games in the series.
“You can see with (UIW’s) lineup, the threat of the home run and how it affects the way you pitch,” Barbier said. “The threat of every pitch you throw leaving the park and changing the scores affects how you pitch. With J.P. and Austin, when you have those guys swinging the bat well, it gets you better pitches to hit, because the pitcher Is squeezing the ball a little tighter. I thought we had our best weekend, top to bottom, having good at-bats. Our offense is peaking at the right time.”
The Demons will need that offense to continue against a Bearkats squad that holds a team batting average of .301 and features five regulars hitting at least .319.
The Bearkats stand second to Incarnate Word in the Southland in batting average and home runs, but the Demons have proven themselves able to overcome early deficits this season.
In the series opener against UIW, Northwestern State trailed 4-0 after one inning before rallying for a 7-6 victory. It marked the second time this season NSU has erased a four-run, first-inning deficit to grab a win. The other came April 24 at then-No. 6/8 Arkansas.
“There’s no doubt we fight, especially when we’re behind,” Barbier said. “We’ve given up a couple of crooked numbers early in the game and fought back to tie or take the lead. When you play good teams, they expose your mistakes. We have to limit those mistakes, tighten it up a little on the mound, and keep swinging the bats like we have.”
Thursday: Northwestern State RHP Cullen McDonald (5-1, 3.58) at Sam Houston State RHP Hayden Wesneski (7-3, 3.09)
Friday: Northwestern State LHP Ridge Heisler (3-5, 3.56) at Sam Houston State LHP Seth Ballew (2-4, 7.82)
Saturday: Northwestern State RHP Nathan Jones (7-3, 2.76) at Sam Houston State LHP Dominic Robinson (3-0, 3.86)
Photo: The Northwestern State baseball team gathers before a game against Nicholls. Credit: Gary Hardamon/NSU Photographic Services